The way Tammy Abraham tells it, his decision to join Roma came down to a desire to enjoy a little more vitamin D. He has recounted many times the story of how José Mourinho opened his sales pitch last summer with a simple question: “Do you want to enjoy some sun or stay in the rain?”
Yet the real question was a more profound one: was Abraham ready to give up the familiarity and comfort of England for a chance to make his name somewhere different. He had scored goals at Chelsea – 30 in all competitions across the preceding two seasons – yet seen his opportunities reduced by a manager, Thomas Tuchel, who confessed to not trusting him.
At Roma, Abraham would have a chance to be the main man, taking over the No 9 shirt vacated by Edin Dzeko. The €40m (£34m) fee agreed between the Giallorossi and Chelsea was the highest paid by any Serie A club for a player last summer. By accepting the move, Abraham was not so much stepping into the sunshine as the spotlight.
He has thrived under it. Despite a dry run from late September, when he went seven games without scoring, Abraham had 21 goals in all competitions by last Thursday – matching Gabriel Batistuta’s and Vincenzo Montella’s first-season tallies with two months to spare. He had hit the woodwork seven times besides.
It was his 90th-minute strike against Vitesse that delivered Roma to the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League. Not the most glamorous achievement for a player who was part of a Champions League-winning squad at Chelsea last season, but indicative of a tendency to show up when his team needed him most. He struck the winner, too, against Atalanta – rivals for a spot in next season’s European competitions – at the start of the month.
The one item missing from his first-season account was a goal in the derby against Lazio. This season’s first meeting had ended with a 3-2 defeat and Maurizio Sarri celebrating with an eagle.
Mourinho feared that the timing of Sunday’s rematch could not have been worse. “I’m happy that we got through,” he said after the win over Vitesse, “but less happy that we had players on the pitch who will also need to be there against Lazio – who are at home smoking cigarettes with Sarri.”
His counterpart took it in good humour, replying that Mourinho was “late” with that jab: “I stopped smoking a few days ago.” He had no such ready responses for the difficulties his team would run into as soon as the match.
If Roma were supposed to be the team with tired legs, then Abraham swept Lazio’s from underneath them with a goal inside the first minute. After Lorenzo Pellegrini’s corner rebounded off the bar, the striker was perfectly positioned to bundle the ball over the line.
It was the fastest strike ever in a Serie A Rome derby, recorded officially at 56 seconds. Abraham followed it up with another goal in the 22nd minute– taking him to 23 for the season. This time it was a slick team move, with Bryan Cristante feeding Henrikh Mkhitaryan down the right and the Armenian nudging the ball on for Rick Karsdorp to cross. Abraham perfectly timed his run into the six-yard box to volley home.
The game was in effect over, Roma enjoying total control. Abraham ought to have completed a hat-trick when Bryan Cristante sent him through on goal with a long pass at the start of the second half, but instead fired wide of the right post.
It doesn’t matter. Lorenzo Pellegrini had made it 3-0 before half-time with a sensational free-kickcurled into the top right-hand corner with such precision that even an alert Thomas Strakosha could only brush it with his fingertips on the way in.
Mourinho was a spectacle all on his own, furiously gesturing to Roma’s ultras to stop the “olé” chants that began to take hold before the interval. They obeyed. The manager has drawn plenty of media criticism this season yet supporters have bought into his work so wholeheartedly that they are even willing to tolerate him taking shots at Zdenek Zeman.
The former Roma manager, whose attacking football and willingness to speak uncomfortable truths to power made him a cult hero for fans of the club, said last week that Sarri was doing better a job than Mourinho. The latter shot back: “You can’t expect a manager with 25 titles to respond to someone who won twice in Serie B.”
Mourinho’s first season in Rome has been a mixed bag. Even after beating Lazio, Roma remain eight points adrift of the Champions league places, and his post-game remarks suggested he does not believe that gap can be bridged in the remaining eight games. Should it not be considered a failure for a team that reached the Europa League semi-finals last season, and spent more than €120m on transfers since, to be out of that race so soon?
Yet Roma’s results are improving. They are unbeaten in nine league games – even if they have required several late goals along the way. More encouraging has been Mourinho’s growing willingness to integrate players from Roma’s hugely successful youth team. Nicola Zalewski, a 20-year-old wing-back, caught the eye in his fourth start on Sunday.
Perhaps most important, though, is that key individuals at the center of this project seem to be responding to Mourinho’s methods. Pellegrini has produced his best season for Roma despite various stints sidelined by injury and illness. Abraham, above all, has gone beyond even the most optimistic pre-season expectations.
It is not only a question of goals. Abraham’s furious commitment to applying Roma’s high press has been fundamental to the way the team plays.
After being called up by England in November, the striker credited Mourinho with turning him into a “monster”. The numbers show that he is attempting, and winning, tackles at a rate at least 20% higher than any other time in his career – and 50% higher than his final season at Chelsea.
During an interview with CBS before Sunday’s derby, the player confessed to still being “starstruck” by Mourinho despite seeing him every day, remembering him as the first-team manager of the Chelsea side he was graduating into from the club’s youth team in 2015. “I’ve never told him this,” said Abraham, “but I still look up to him as an idol.”
A growing number of people in Rome look at him the same way. Abraham’s goals on Sunday mean he has now scored more times in 2022 than any other striker in Europe’s top five leagues besides Robert Lewandowski. At full time he stood with his teammates under the Curva Sud and heard supporters chant his name over and over.
Invited to share his emotions during a post-game interview, Abraham replied: “I can’t. I can’t describe how they make me feel.” Better, we assume, than he would have done, sitting at home in the rain.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism